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Pete Abilla


Stand in a Circle, 5 Whys, and a Call Center

An effective exercise

Published: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 14:18

Some time ago, while consulting for a huge call center, I took a group of customer service agents for a little gemba walk and a quick activity to demonstrate a few lean fundamentals. What was scheduled for a 60-minute exercise turned out to be an experience that awakened the agents, several of whom went on to create reports based on Toyota's A3 problem-solving method and on the plan-do-check-act cycle (a method for learning and improvement developed by Walter Shewhart), that added value to the customer and the company.

Stand in a circle

I gave each of the customer service agents a pencil and a piece of paper. We then stood quietly in the middle of the call center for five minutes. There was no talking. We wrote down as many things as we could observe during those five minutes.


With a white board, still in the middle of the contact center, I had one of the agents create a tally of the items observed. I showed the team how to create a simple tick sheet and then I asked them, “What’s a good way to visualize this data?”

After considering their responses, I showed them how to create a simple Pareto chart using the tick sheet data. Then, I asked them to consider the categories and the bars: “Is there anything curious about what you see?”

Several of them pointed to the highest bar in the Pareto chart, which was, “There are a lot of people working today.”

I then asked, “You all mentioned that ‘there are a lot of people working today,’ which is the highest bar in the Pareto chart. Why?”

I then showed them how to conduct a simple 5 Whys—the practice of asking, five times, why a failure or problem occurred to be able to get to the root causes of the problem. The discussion went like this:

  1. Why are there a lot of agents at the call center? Because there are a lot of inbound warranty calls.
  2. Why are there a lot of inbound warranty calls? Because several products from the company are confusing or defective, and customers need replacements.


At this point in our 5 Whys, we created another branch, which looked at the products that lead to inbound calls. In other words, which products are responsible for inbound calls and what is the call volume?

Based on anecdotal data (for the purposes of the exercise), we took roughly 13 products and estimated their inbound call volume. I emphasized to the team that real data should be used, not just their gut or hunch, but real contact volume data. This product/volume data was helpful in helping us form another Pareto chart. The highest bar in the new Pareto chart begged the question, "Why are 56 percent of the contact volume about product X?

The Socratic process I took this team through accomplished several goals, without the group even being aware of it:

  • They learned how to use a tick sheet for simple data collection
  • They learned how to visualize data from a tick sheet to show an 80/20 via a Pareto chart
  • They learned how to use the 5 Whys and simple root cause analysis
  • They learned how to be curious and not take processes and events for granted
  • They learned how to observe their surroundings and not take what they see for granted
  • They learned the necessary interactions between products, customers, the company’s call center activities
  • They learned that although they played a seemingly small role in the company, this 60-minute exercise led them to fundamental issues in the company and, with little instruction or prodding on my part, they learned on their own.


Small rocks, a million of them

Turning a traditional business approach on its head can be satisfying. Indeed, watching and helping others grow and stretch and contribute is worthwhile to see and experience. Lean is not about a few big rocks, though they are necessary; lean is more about small rocks, but a lot them.

It’s your turn

What do you think about this approach? How might I improve? A variant of this exercise that I’ve done is to go down the 5S route or the 7 Wastes route. The exercise is effective in either case.


About The Author

Pete Abilla’s picture

Pete Abilla

Pete Abilla wirtes the blog shmula, where he gives his take on technology, business, operations, The Toyota Production System, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, Queueing Theory, operations research, building software, the customer experience (especially ethnography and design thinking and word-of-mouth marketing).

Abilla is an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, where he teaches students at the Marriott School of Management in operations and supply chain management. He is also active in the business and technology community in Utah and was peer-nominated as a v|100 for 2009, a recognition awarded to influential business leaders in the state of Utah. He earned his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University in Philosophy and Mathematics and my graduate degree from The University of Chicago in Operations Research.

He's a green-thumb-challenged gardner, a wannabe cook, and happily married to his High School sweetheart.


5 Whys The only Tool you need

An interesting methodology contratulations as this gives ownership. You would have got them thinking and hopefully doing their own thing. I make a point of never giving solutions although many a time they ask for them. There's a saying about feeding people that says give the man a fish and you will aways be feeding that man. But then if you teach this man to fish he will take care of himself. Self realisation is a great thing to observe and makes the day worthwhile when we see the light bulbs go on.

Really who needs all these fads? Lean or Six Sigma or or. The 5 whys are an essential tool kit and so simple to apply it doesn't need a black belt or a green one. Say after me WHY? and WHY so? and WHY so? and WHY so? and WHY so? Boring isn't it? This is why parents get so annoyed with their kids when at a very early age they ask why and then why and then why again. etc.

So my take on this is to have a big tub of ice cream. When they get to the 5th why you give them an ice cream yep staff and kids alike. It works with either.

You see this is just a change in how one thinks. Why is it at an early age we have this wonderful gift of seeking the reasoning behind events that control our life. Mum says don't touch that it's hot. Why is it hot? Because it is. Why is it? Well there's a source of heat there and it will burn you if you touch it. Why will it burn me? Because it's hot. Why is it hot? Have you been here? We teach kids to grow up for a variety of reasons the main one being survival. But there is a reverse education going on here. The child is feeding back vital information as to their level of understanding and then we as adults make changes to our responses. So we to learn from this exchange of whys. Yet as we age we loose this powerful tool, this thirst for knowledge. Of seeking why we are a lonely planet in a big universe. Fear of being seen as an odd ball, or someone that doesn't fit in perhaps. Using the 5 whys without telling them they are going to get an ice cream has a magical effect when upon getting to the 5th why you produce the ice cream. Handy to have some toppings hidden away somewhere as well.

We should remember that all these fads are nothing more than tools. The trick is to know when to use what tool. Because everyone else is doing it does not cut the ice. The trick is to bring out the child in each and everyone and run up the yellow brick road learning as much as we can along the way. Hey you might get to meet Alice!
Nice work Pete.
Rob Langdon
Quality Manager
Biomedical Technology Services